April 26th, 2011 – my mom’s dad passed away at age 78 (I think). He’d fallen out of bed a couple of nights or so before that day and went into coma. He’d broken a bone in the arm or forearm – I don’t know the medical term for the bone he broke – which ruptured a blood vessel, and he died of internal bleeding, which no one had noticed until his arm, forearm and hand began to swell and it was too late. But what made him that weak and fragile in the fist place was two things:
- He had HIV+ for a couple of years.
- He was on heavy medication for HIV treatment (I don’t know the technical terms for the drugs.) and others for his old age and other health concerns.
Around the mid-2000s, he had a traffic accident and one of my aunts was with him. The doctors found a tumour in the head and other faults with his body, and despite the many medications and several operations, he never recovered. Then we found out he was HIV+ and AIDS was kicking in. How he got the virus is a tale of his own, which he may or may not know himself. And I’m not even sure if he was aware of the cause of his sickness all this time. But one thing for sure: everybody in the family kept this secret. It’s a shame to have this terminal illness in Burma, especially for a person of his respectable age and status. I discovered this little secret only a couple of months before his death when my mom was having a sex-ed talk with me. Sex-ed is a very weak institution in Burma; even then, I was 17.
The old man was enjoying his retirement before the accident. After the accident and all the medical procedures, he never lived a happy life again. He didn’t get along with his children anymore although they were trying to support him emotionally and financially. And 2 of his daughters lived with him but he couldn’t stand them anymore. He would barely talk to his wife, my Grandma who is very religious, and criticize her spiritual pursuits. Obviously, they stopped sleeping in the same bed, which made him vulnerable at his old age and with his weak health condition – very prone to falling off bed and nobody noticing until in the morning. It’s fortunate enough that he found comfort in my mother. She is the eldest and, being the brightest in the family and thus a medical doctor, he was most proud and most fond of her. Some nice things she said to her: he apologized that he couldn’t cure her polio but said that he could die happily since she found my dad, who is very supportive of her. (Old Burmese people talking of death is a typical thing, especially after their retirement.) My mom cried to me one night that she was too obsessed with me and my college career to have cared enough for her father. That was a sad night. And he didn’t know I ever got to college.
Anyway, this story is supposed to be some family secret, but I’m blatantly throwing it out in the open to make a point that HIV/AIDS is rampant and it strikes people of all ages from all walks of life. And if a friend or a family member gets infected, they’ll definitely fall into terminal illness and we need to be there for them. My mom’s family tried to give my Grandpa a happy time for the remainder of his life, but he was overly grumpy and aggressive that he couldn’t recover from the injuries of the traffic accident and that he should be dependent on the people around him for his well-being/survival. I didn’t get to know the old man very closely. But the final years of his life were kind of tragic.
And my parents’ profession, being medical doctors and general practitioners, put them at risks of a lot of infectious, contagious sicknesses, the worst being HIV infection. They run a private clinic. Well, my mom’s the boss – and I’m proud that she, despite her physical disability (her right leg being atrophied from polio), can run a business. Most general practitioners don’t offer some services anymore – especially those for which they have to handle blood and body mucus – out of fear of infections. My parents need money to pay for my college and my sister’s, so they decided they’d take the risk and offer all sorts of services. Plus, my mom had run the clinic in those slums of this town for over 20 years – even before I was born, even before she was married – and the people there trust her and look up to her for any health concerns. It only adds to the clinic’s accountability that my parents provide all kinds of services that the patients need and they have knowledge to provide. Just today, my parents were complaining about having pierced themselves with needles. They have a very high risk of getting infected – not just HIV but also other infections. I’m proud that they are taking such a huge risk and making such a huge sacrifice for the sake of my education and my sister’s and for the sake of their patients’ health concerns. They are everyday heroes.
I am concerned with HIV/AIDS issues within the Burmese community, which has barely any sex-education or proper education at all for all citizens. We are a third world country, and there are no reliable statistics we can look at to learn of the spread of this virus within this nation. One of my mom’s friends who works at a local hospital has once mentioned this shocking thing: out of the 20 men hospitalized in a ward, 18 were HIV+. That was a small scope and it’s not on record, but still it’s shocking – 90% of 20 random people at a random hospital. Also, since I’m gay and the LGBT community had been notorious for casual sex and sexual transmission of HIV and other STIs, I’m also concerned about my queer folks.
This afternoon, my parents were explaining to me about their occupational hazard with the HIV virus. I was shocked and awed. I am proud of what they are doing and at the same time I am worried for them also. This is my story about HIV/AIDS. And I bet everyone would have one or more of their own. Feel free to share!
NOTE: The HIV virus is a kind of Retrovirus. And being HIV+ (HIV positive) is sometimes referred to as being Retropositive. “Retro” is a slang in Burma, especially among the medical personnel to talk of HIV/AIDS issues.